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Opinion Columns

Opinion: Colorado rivers and water security — worth the investment

Reports continue to flow into newspapers across Colorado about the record snowpack and stream flows we’re experiencing.

We’re incredibly fortunate for this year’s wet weather, but we know that we can’t rely on unpredictable weather patterns to get us out of the drought, water shortages and low river flows we’ve experienced for most of the last 19 years.

Bart Miller

In the face of a warming western climate, strong snowpack and runoff will likely be the exception, not the rule.

The water future we need won’t be handed to us; we have to plan proactively to create it.

Fortunately, strategies to minimize the potential risks and uncertainties of a continued dry future have been developed with input from people all around the state and are included in Colorado’s Water Plan.

But these strategies — especially ones that don’t traditionally get top billing, like stream health — are vital for our recreation economy, agriculture, clean drinking water and a healthy environment, and they need funding and support.

In the past year, Colorado’s Water Plan received a $10 million additional boost from the state’s general fund. This new money was a valuable down payment, but we need far more. In fact, according to the Colorado Water Conservation Board, Colorado’s Water Plan needs $100 million annually in new revenue.

We must keep our current momentum going, even in the midst of a wetter year.

Fortunately, diverse groups and partners across the state have worked hard to identify the most acute needs and key projects.

The priorities for the Water Plan fall into a few different categories.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

To drive conservation solutions where we live and work, we need cities to incentivize measures that save water, assist with long-term planning, encourage water-sharing agreements, increase re-use opportunities and support aquifer recharge and restoration.

We also need to protect the health of our rivers. We can do this in part by championing and implementing stream management plans (which focus on safeguarding a river’s environmental and recreational health), as well as supporting programs like instream flow loans.

Taking systemic approaches like these, paired with tangible measures that protect river recreation and fishing, will help us balance our use of rivers for communities, businesses, wildlife and river-side habitats alike.

Healthy watersheds aren’t only vital for clean water — they also play a role in preventing wildfires. We need to enlist partners like the U.S. Forest Service, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and other state agencies to implement watershed and forest health projects and conduct community outreach to make clearer the connections between healthy watersheds, clean water, and local economies.

We also have to provide funding for farmers and ranchers to incentivize improvements to their irrigation delivery systems.

This includes implementing programs that pay irrigators, to temporarily and voluntarily reduce their water consumption — thereby keeping more water in nearby rivers and streams. 

The result is a flexible, dynamic way to provide greater water security, which in turn supports small businesses, agricultural providers, rural communities, the outdoor recreation industry and river habitats.

Lastly, the physical structures that deliver our water need rehabilitation, too. We need to develop strategies and priorities for improving our water storage and delivery infrastructure — such as piping ditches, canals and the other structures that move water to cities and farms.

When pursued together, meeting these priorities can create a stronger, cleaner, more sustainable water management system across Colorado that protects our way of life and creates new opportunities for everyone who relies on our rivers. 

But investing in our water future will require sustainable, long-term funding to ensure that all of these priorities are met.

Colorado voters have a crucial role to play in this: we can no longer stand idly by when it comes to passing sustainable funding for Colorado’s Water Plan. We need to seriously embrace the challenge to pass meaningful water funding in 2020.

Now is the time to identify and address those priorities. We’re all in this together, and it is essential that Colorado voters understand these needs and embrace their role in protecting our water future.

Bart Miller is the Healthy Rivers Program Director at Western Resource Advocates.

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